Mother Nature's hidden jewel
Story and photos by Marian Douglas
Hidden among pecan trees and peach orchards between Fort Valley and Marshallville on Highway 49 is a 30-acre jewel called Massee Lane Gardens, home of the American Camellia Society. Massee Lane became the society's headquarters in 1968 when one of its founding members and local peach farmer, David C. Strother, donated 160 acres to the society for their headquarters. The gardens are waiting to be discovered by gardeners and artists alike. These gardens feature one of the finest camellia collections in the world and are nestled here in the Middle Georgia countryside.
The best time to visit Massee Lane is in February when there is a nip in the air and the gardens are laden with color of more than 1,000 varieties of camellias planted here. Nearly 10 acres, the formal camellia garden is the crown jewel of these gardens. Brick pathways lead you to up-close encounters with beautiful camellia blooms in the most brilliant hues of red, pink, white and everything in between. Even their names evoke a sense of opulence--Ville de Nantes, Elegans Supreme, Lady Clare and Jean's Unsurpassable.
Various species of camellias are in bloom from September to March with peak season lasting from late January through early March. Massee Lane Gardens hosts the Festival of Camellias each February with special programs, workshops and tours.
Strolling down a brick path near the back of the formal garden, you arrive at the Abendroth Japanese Garden. Enclosed by a bamboo fence, the Japanese garden is a fine example of Asian horticulture and the epitome of serenity. Inside the garden is an authentic tea house, which provides shelter for a tea ceremony. Get lost in the sound of cascading water as it rolls gently over boulders into a pond filled with bright flame-colored koi.
If you are up for adventure and don't mind getting off the brick path, then the Seedling Forest is for you. The approximately 2-acre forest is where camellia enthusiast Strother tested new varieties of camellias before putting them in the formal garden. "It has a wonderful secret garden feel to it," says Celeste Richard, Operations Manager. "There are some real hidden treasures waiting to be discovered here."
Nearby the Abendroth Japanese Garden and the Seedling Forest is a landscaped greenhouse where over 160 camellia varieties are sheltered from freezing conditions during the winter months. Outside the greenhouse is the rare "fossil" tree. The tree, a dawn redwood, a member of the sequoia family, was considered extinct before being rediscovered in the early 1930s. Trees were distributed to gardens around the country in an effort to save the species. This one was planted by Strother himself.
From the "fossil" tree, you can walk toward the 2.4-acre, man-made lake. Around the lake you can find a native azalea garden, which blooms in March; the environmental garden, which features plants native to the Southeastern United States; and the Garden for the Child, a discovery garden where children and adults can interact. Also close by is the daylily display garden, which becomes awash in color when the daylilies reach their peak mid-May to mid-June. This 2- to 3-acre garden contains more than 500 different daylily cultivars or varieties, most of them planted in large blocks.
There are other attractions besides camellias, daylilies and azaleas. Another hidden jewel found at the gardens is its galleries. The Stevens-Taylor Gallery and the gallery found in the Annabelle Lundy Fetterman Educational Museum boasts the world's largest collection of Edward Marshall Boehm porcelains on public display, featuring many rare pieces as well as works by other artists. Boehm was an American sculptor know for his porcelain figures of birds and other wildlife. Today, notable examples of his work are in 134 museums and institutions throughout the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Buckingham Palace in London. The smaller Stevens-Taylor Gallery, Massee Lane's first gallery, houses some of Boehm's earliest work.
Stop and explore Mother Nature's hidden jewel in all its glory. Massee Lane is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. throughout the year. During the Festival of Camellias in February, the gardens are open every day. Admission is $5. Flint members who show their Co-op Connections Card receive $1 off admission. Children under 12 and American Camellia Society Members are free. For more information, please visit http://www.americancamellias.org/ or call 478-967-2358.
Did you know?
- Tea plants are a variety of camellia.
- There are 39 granite gristmill stones incorporated in the brick paths or placed as seats throughout the garden. Can you locate them all?
- The American Camellia Society was founded in Macon in 1945.
- A letter written by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow thanking a person for bringing a basket of camellia blossoms by in the rain can be found at the ACS administration building's library.
- Dave Strother planted more than 1,000 varieties of camellias and traveled as many as 25,000 miles a season looking for new ones.